Government & Public Policy

People walking on the street near the entrance to the Consulate of Mexico in San Diego.

In an effort to help Mexican nationals wade through various immigration and criminal issues, foreign service officers are studying the foundations of American law.

April 29, 2020

As border issues continue to vie for center stage in American politics, it’s more important than ever that Mexican diplomats have a firm understanding of the ever-changing American laws.

Though Mexican foreign service officers receive high levels of training in the fundamentals of United States law through their Mexico City-based diplomatic academy, Instituto Matias Romero, the Consul General, a longtime advocate of improving relations between the United States and Mexico, recognized the need for ongoing training to ensure diplomats were up to date on U.S. immigration and criminal law to better serve Mexican nationals on both sides of the border.

“Helping Mexican government officials provide services to those in the United States—or interested in coming to the United States—and having us be open to [sharing knowledge] that is useful for them in their work helps strengthen the relationship between our countries,” says Katherine Barnes, the associate dean of programs and innovation at the University of Arizona. “It’s a model of how different countries and organizations can work together, across cultures, toward a common goal.”

Creating a New Curriculum

An ongoing dialogue between Marc Miller, dean of the James E. Rogers College of Law at UArizona, and Ricardo Pineda, the Tucson-based Mexican Consul General, led to the launch of a new program for members of the Mexican diplomatic corps.

In 2017, administrators responded to a request for proposals, and the James E. Rogers College of Law was chosen from among a number of well-respected competitors to provide classes to the premier diplomatic corps. A team of seven faculty members, all experts in their fields, worked together to develop the curriculum, create course materials and teach classes; all of the resources were developed based on feedback from Mexican diplomats about their specific needs.

“We’re training diplomats, not lawyers; [the diplomat’s] role is not to provide legal advice but to help Mexican citizens to know where to go to identify their issues and, if needed, seek out legal services in the U.S. or Mexico,” says Miller. “[The courses] are less about discussions of case law that would happen in a traditional law school classroom and more about particular, factual settings and issues, and how those might be resolved or what sorts of resources might be available to help resolve them.”

With diplomats posted in 51 Mexican consulates and embassies across the United States, making it the largest foreign service operating in a host country, having everyone attend classes on the UArizona campus was not an option. To accommodate rigorous schedules and diverse locations of the diplomats, the classes were offered online.

Building Partnerships

The first session launched in fall 2018. More than 75 members of the Mexican diplomatic corps signed up for the first round of continuing education offerings, which included a six-week class in the fundamentals of U.S. law and four-week classes in immigration and criminal procedures. After their coursework and examinations were completed, diplomats received a certificate issued jointly from UArizona and the Mexican Foreign Ministry (Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores).

Miller calls the level of engagement “stunning” and, based on positive feedback from the diplomats who participated in the initial cohort, law school faculty created a second round of classes on trade and economic law. All of these future classes will be offered on a rolling basis and, thanks to the ever-changing diplomatic corps, Miller expects the demand to remain high.

This partnership between UArizona and the Mexican Foreign Ministry has attracted a lot of attention, and the new cohort that started in May includes diplomats from Guatemala and El Salvador. And, consular generals from other countries have reached out to inquire about opportunities to work together to train their foreign service officers, too.

“We are in active conversations with other diplomatic corps’, and many of those countries have somewhat different priorities…with some focusing on employment and family law, indigenous rights, and cross-border trade and investment,” Miller says. “One of the things we hope we’ll establish is that we’ll become an ongoing and trusted partner and trainer for diplomats across different countries.”

In addition to providing essential training to help Mexican diplomats excel in their roles, Miller hopes that the relationship will accomplish a bigger goal—strengthening ties between the United States and Mexico. “A program that builds partnerships to increase our understanding and appreciation, whether it’s for legal systems, political systems or social systems, has got to be good,” she says, “both in the short and long run, for international relations.”

A line of semi-trucks on the highway driving towards the border from the U.S. to Mexico.

As USMCA ratification is completed, and NAFTA is replaced, UArizona researchers provide insight into what this means for US-Mexico relations.

April 29, 2020

At the Mariposa Land Port of Entry in Nogales, Arizona, under steel canopies that provide relief from the harsh desert landscape, a poem etched on a wall, in both English and Spanish, is a message for border crossers. The poem, Border Lines, is written by Nogales, Arizona native and Arizona Poet Laureate Alberto Álvaro Ríos. It ends with the lines, Let us turn the map until we see clearly: / The border is what joins us, / Not what separates us.

Border economies along the U.S.-Mexico border—like Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, straddling the Mariposa Land Port of Entry—have become economically enmeshed over the last 25 years because of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and tariff-free trade between the US and Mexico. Since NAFTA went into effect in 1994, U.S. trade with Mexico and, and the third member of NAFTA–Canada–has quadrupled, and earlier this year, Mexico surpassed China as the U.S.’s largest trade partner.

A renegotiation of NAFTA began in 2017 when President Donald Trump announced his intentions to replace the current trade agreement. The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, is a trilateral trade agreement that would replace NAFTA. USMCA was signed on November 30, 2018, but it remains open to be ratified by each country’s legislature.

One of the most significant changes between NAFTA and USMCA is new labor provisions, and there are questions surrounding whether those provisions are enforceable. Jeff Kucik, associate professor in the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona, says that “Enforcement is notoriously difficult.” While USMCA retains NAFTA’s core dispute procedures, those are rarely used for labor issues, he adds.

One of the major labor changes is allowing Mexican workers to vote on union and labor contracts through secret ballots. But it is unclear if this goes far enough for Democratic members of Congress, which may be a roadblock when Congress reconvenes after their six-week recess and begins to debate and ratify USMCA. Kucik says that “labor rights have been a sticking point for Democrats for decades.” Democrats have opposed past trade deals like Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement, arguing laborers would be worse off.

A Ripple Effect

Failure to ratify USMCA could lead to market instability. “We’re already seeing how the U.S.-China trade war is generating fears on Wall Street and around global capital markets” says Kucik. Aggravating the situation, Trump’s “aggressive stance on trade is already affecting prices. Last year’s steel and aluminum tariffs were partly responsible for a 30% increase in U.S. steel prices in 2018. That hurts major manufacturers like Caterpillar, who have already suffered as a result of the tariffs. It also hurts smaller enterprises like craft brewers.”

Kucik says that USMCA is unlikely to impact U.S.-Mexico relations in a dramatic way because the trilateral negotiations between U.S.-Mexico-Canada ultimately resulted in “very modest changes.” In fact, one benefit of USMCA ratification is that it may bring needed stability: “During negotiations, there was a lot of feeling that any deal would be better than no deal. Greater economic damage would’ve been done if Trump threw NAFTA away.”

An additional benefit of USMCA ratification is that it may curtail job and revenue loss. “Failing to ratify USMCA could open the door for more trade protection and larger price hikes. That’s bad news for consumers and workers across the country, not just in Arizona” Kucik says.

The North American Research Partnership and Crossborder Group released a policy review in March on USMCA and the impact the changes would have on Arizona. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Arizona land port of entries like Mariposa processed an average of $28 billion in trade with Mexico between 2015-2017. The review found that returning to a time before tariff-free trade could put “tens of thousands of Arizona jobs at risk.”

Similarly, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranked Arizona number nine on a list of “states that would suffer most if the United States withdraws from NAFTA”. Failure to ratify would also undermine infrastructure investments like the $244 million spent on the expansion of the Mariposa Land Port of Entry.

And Arizona Governor Doug Ducey supports ratifying USMCA, writing in a letter to Arizona’s Congressional members, “I’m proud to say today Arizona enjoys its strongest partnership with Mexico as at any time in our state’s history” He says that USMCA will take that partnership to “the next level.”

But Arizona is not the only one set to benefit from the approval of USMCA. In February, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, along with 200 companies and associations from different economic sectors, drafted an open letter supporting the passing of USMCA. “Approval of USMCA will ensure U.S. manufacturers, farmers, and service providers can continue to access the Canadian and Mexican markets. The new pact guarantees that virtually all U.S. exports will enter these markets tariff-free.”

Aerial view of the border wall stretching through the desert.

It has been a humanitarian challenge for years, but now, the rapidly shifting policies of the Trump administration have once again put the border front and center. Discover how past presidents approached the issue in this decade-by-decade timeline.

April 28, 2020

The Mexico–United States border — 2,000 miles of terrain ranging from desert to urban sprawl — is the most traversed border in the world, with over 350 million documented crossings every year.

A highly controversial concern due to the Trump administration's policies on immigration, as well as deeper, polarizing issues within the U.S., many academics trace the current stalemate to President Lyndon B. Johnson's pivotal Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended a long-standing quota system that heavily favored Western Europeans. The law created a new path to citizenship that focused on reuniting immigrant families and bringing skilled workers to the U.S., which, over time, gradually but dramatically transformed the demographic make-up of the country, generating a decades-long ideological struggle between open borders and stricter immigration laws.

Here is a timeline of the past 50 years and the history behind the issues of today.

1970s: The Nixon, Ford & Carter Administrations

In September 1969, the Nixon administration launched "Operation Intercept," an anti-drug measure that resulted in the near closing of the border between Mexico and the United States. The operation was unpopular and failed, but it led to the Boundary Treaty of 1970, which created our modern border lines.

Under President Gerald Ford, the U.S. House of Representatives launched the Domestic Council Committee on Illegal Aliens, and introduced a bill providing amnesty for workers currently in the United States along with employer sanctions for hiring illegal immigrants, alleging that they were driving down the wages of American workers.

In 1978, during President Jimmy Carter’s term, Congress created the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy to further explore solutions and tighten restrictions on illegal immigration. In Mexico, the nationalized oil industry experienced a boom with the discovery of an offshore oil reserve called the Cantarell Field but, by the end of the decade, the country was again in debt, a victim of fiscal mismanagement.

1980s: The Ronald Reagan Administration

Experiencing the worst recession since the Great Depression, high unemployment once again drove Mexican workers north to the United States to seek work. By 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, determined to once again stem the flow by cracking down on U.S. employers who were hiring illegal immigrants, while granting amnesty to those already in the country. During this period, illegal immigration plummeted while, in Mexico, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari pushed to privatize nationalized industry and deregulate the economy, foreshadowing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

1990s: The George H.W. Bush and Clinton Administrations

With the launch of the Immigration Act of 1990 under President George H. W. Bush, the number of legal immigrants accepted into the U.S. each year increased from 500,000 to 700,000. Bush also established the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, determined to strengthen Border Patrol through advanced training. Illegal immigration soared, creating a greater demand for more security and surveillance at the border.

In February 1994, the Clinton administration unveiled a new immigration plan that prioritized security, deportation and a reorganization of the asylum process, encouraging legal immigrants to seek citizenship. Increased power was given to local law enforcement in border states with the specific aim of blocking immigrants from major smuggling routes, unintentionally causing a rise in migrant deaths along remote areas.

That same year, NAFTA went into effect, eliminating tariffs and turning the United States, Mexico and Canada into the world’s second-largest trading bloc after Europe. Initially, this served to provide the Mexican economy with a boost, but an economic crisis created by political instability, a drop in foreign investor confidence and government misspending undermined the economy and, late in 1994, the peso suffered a collapse, causing internal strife. This period saw the rise of the Zapatista Movement in Chiapas, and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, or IIRIRA, which scholars cite as one of the largest changes to immigration laws over the last few decades.

Early 2000s: The George W. Bush Administration

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, border security increased as fears of undocumented immigration grew. Two years later, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created, incorporating the INS, Customs and nearly 20 other agencies. That same year, President Bush's proposed guest-worker program met with strong opposition in Congress, which instead endorsed a plan to strengthen the Border Patrol. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which authorized 10,000 new agents, nearly doubled the patrol by 2010. This led to broader policy developments for the Department of Homeland Security and the Secure Border Initiative (SBI).

By 2005, the Border Patrol launched Operation Streamline as part of a collection of zero-tolerance policies implemented at the Mexico–U.S. border, designed to prosecute and remove undocumented immigrants through an expedited process. This period saw the rise of militia and vigilante groups like the Minuteman Project, a collective of over 1,000 volunteers who searched the desert for undocumented immigrants, as well as groups like No Mas Muerte/No More Deaths, which sought to aid migrants in their perilous journey. In 2006, with the ratification of the Secure Fence Act, the U.S. began construction on 650 miles of fencing.

2008–2016: The Obama Administration

According to the U.S. Border Patrol, from 2007–2011, arrests and detentions of illegal migrants from Central America at the U.S.-Mexico border were reduced from 70,000 to 55,000. Factors such as a weakened U.S. economy in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis increased cartel violence in Northern Mexico, and the Border Patrol’s ongoing “prevention through deterrence” policy made border crossings riskier and much less promising. In 2012 alone, agents made more than 364,000 arrests, instituting border-control strategies including Operation Safeguard in Tucson, Ariz, and the Arizona Border Control Initiative (ABCI) along the state border. The number of apprehensions increased dramatically from 95,000 in 2012 to 220,000 in 2014, with President Obama taking executive action on immigration reform that year, granting temporary work permits and deportation exemptions to millions of undocumented immigrants. This was a continuation of 2012's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — or DACA — an ambitious initiative, still in existence today, that defers deportation proceedings for those under 15 who were brought to the U.S. as children. 

Today: The Trump Administration

In 2016, Republican nominee Donald Trump ran for president on an “America First” platform of tougher immigration restrictions and a plan to build a border wall with Mexico. In January 2017, Trump signed an Executive Order to expedite construction on the wall, but on September 20 of that year, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a lawsuit alleging that the Trump administration had overstepped its powers.

In June 2018, the administration established an additional policy designed to separate parents from their children at the Mexican border. The judge ruled in favor of advocacy groups, placing an injunction on the administration. In an escalation of rhetoric, on March 31, 2019, President Trump threatened to shut down the border with Mexico, effectively cutting off trade between the two countries. Yet, despite all the political posturing, the number of undocumented migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border has remained near its lowest levels since the early 1970s, although the number has risen steadily since President Trump took office. 

While much of the country came to a standstill this year due to the coronavirus epidemic, the Trump administration ramped up construction of its multibillion-dollar southern border wall and announced the closure of the border to all non-essential travel.

In March, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced plans to erect more than 150 miles of the 30-foot border wall in Arizona, New Mexico and California—in addition to ongoing construction work at 15 sites across those states and Texas.

The main entrance to The National Palace or Palacio Nacional in Mexico City.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted a spectrum of industries, tech included, companies from both the Arizona-Sonora region and abroad are still looking for support to foster tech innovation in the region.

April 28, 2020

When Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or “AMLO” as he is affectionately called, won Mexico’s 2018 presidential election in a landslide, claiming 53 percent of the vote, he rode in on a wave of change. Left-leaning and a presumed populist, he had campaigned on curtailing corruption, and capitalized on discontent with outgoing president Enrique Peña Nieto, whose perceived reckless spending had created considerable anger in a country where 43 percent of the population experience financially instability, and politics is often seen as the road to easy money.

Dubbed “The Tropical Messiah” by Enrique Krauze, a historian and pundit, López Obrador has been painted by detractors as a Donald Trump-style Latin American strongman with a dictatorial bent, while others see him as a pragmatist with a Mexico First vision. In his fourth and finally successful run for the presidency, López Obrador had been described as self-assured and occasionally arrogant, but also something of an intellectual, with over a dozen books to his credit, including Don’t Say Goodbye to Hope and The Mafia That Took Possession of Mexico.

The Promise of Austerity

From the start, he’s made austerity a defining characteristic of his presidency by only flying commercial and promising to take a 40 percent pay cut, backed by new laws demanding that no public servant can earn more than he does. López Obrador has also promised to increase social spending and cut poverty, which many feel was inspired by his upbringing in Tabasco, one of the poorest states in Mexico and where he launched his political career.

Far from the entrenched networks of Mexico City, López Obrador’s first taste of political life came during the late 1970s when he worked as a representative of Mexico’s National Indigenous Institute in his native state, even living in a shack to develop greater empathy for indigenous families.

“He knows that the south of Mexico is the poorest part of the nation, that it badly needs a pension, and he's willing to do something about that,” says William Beezley, a professor of history at the University of Arizona with a focus on Modern Mexican History and Latin American Cultural History. Beezley believes that, like his predecessors, López Obrador wants to curb violence and corruption, and is committed to building a stronger and more resilient economy, convinced that he can be successful where others have failed.

An Independent Mexico

In his first radical step, López Obrador broke away from the Merida Agreement, removing Mexico from the unpopular and costly war on drugs. No longer will U.S. advisors, helicopters or military equipment track the cartels, a development that Beezley sees as important for Mexican pride and nationalism.

“He is going to regularly do things to create Mexican independence from U.S. policy,” says Beezley, who feels there’s a disconnect between the popular misconception of drug cartels and the reality on the ground. “Drug cartels don't exist anymore—they're organized crime, like the mafia. They're involved in protection, kidnapping and drugs. So even if the drugs suddenly disappeared, all these other activities would continue.”

López Obrador vows to abandon the “failed strategy” his predecessors used to tackle these issues, including a heavily militarized 11-year campaign that claimed over 200,000 lives. He also hopes to decrease violence and corruption by reshaping the economy, providing social security and money to the poorest regions in Mexico.

“I am convinced that the most effective and humane way of fighting these ills involves combating inequality and poverty,” he said during his victory speech in July 2018. "Peace and tranquility are fruits of justice.”

A Populist President?

López Obrador hopes to bolster the economy by raising wages, with the intended effect of making corruption and crime less attractive. Detractors say he is clinging to a long-gone vision of Mexico, of a time when the private sector took a backseat to the president and state, a balance of power that largely ended when NAFTA gained a foothold in the ’90s. Yet, he has agreed to sign on to the new United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA), formally NAFTA, with reservations.  

So what about his populism?

“AMLO’s popularity and why people associate him with being a populist is that he, like many in Mexico, are disenchanted with programs that over the last 35-40 years have just not worked," says Beezley. "He thinks he can make serious changes to the Mexican economy and Mexico's relationship with the United States, particularly at the border. And because he's willing to make those changes, he's been misidentified as a kind of populist, when he's actually trying to create something different. And sometimes, it's just popular to propose a change.”

And it certainly has been. According to a survey last year in the newspaper El Financiero, López Obrador has a 66 percent approval rating, compared to just 26 percent for Peña Nieto at the time of his departure from office. But for now, we will have to wait and see how López Obrador handles the almost daily news coming from the Trump White House, along with how he will continue to navigate this tenuous period in the U.S.-Mexico relationship.

Continued Popularity in the Time of Coronavirus

According to a 2018 survey in the newspaper El Financiero, López Obrador had a 66 percent approval rating, compared to just 26 percent for Peña Nieto at the time of his departure from office. That rate has held steady through the first part of 2020, even as he unveiled more cuts in response to the Covid-19 crisis, including the abolition of 10 government departments, a hiring freeze and a 25 percent cut in government salaries.

Despite the cuts, the president promised to plough ahead with a litany of projects including a huge oil refinery in his home state of Tabasco, a pair of railways and an airport north of Mexico City. But these projects have collided with coronavirus—Mexico has confirmed 11,633 Covid-19 cases and 1,069 deaths, although the country’s health officials admit the true number is much higher. The pandemic could not have come at a worse moment: Mexico’s economy stagnated in 2019 and was already projected to contract in 2020.

In response, AMLO has proposed loans for households and business. He also promised to boost social programs and push forward pension payments.

But critics like Oxfam Mexico have expressed skepticism that these measures will be enough to help those affected by the crisis, stating in a report that they “are not designed to support that many people in poverty at this time.”

In April, AMLO said he would take out around $16.6 billion from public trusts and a budget stabilization fund to address the economic crisis that analysts expect may reduce Mexico's GDP by four to 12 percent. Lopez Obrador also said his administration will continue with its austerity measures, will not incur public debt, and will not bail out companies or give tax breaks to people or companies.

But Covid-19 is sure to put austerity to the test, and only time will tell if these measures will be enough to help Mexico weather the storm.

A group of Central American migrants walking along a train track.

UArizona researchers explore how new policies for asylum seekers are straining relations between the United States and Mexico.

April 29, 2020

Headlines draw attention to caravans of migrants approaching the border between the United States and Mexico; the hopeful asylum seekers often traveling thousands of miles across unforgiving terrain to seek refuge in the U.S. But when their journey ends at the border, the wait begins.

In the past, migrants fleeing political instability, gangs, cartel violence, persecution for their sexual orientations or gender identities and abject poverty in their home countries who requested asylum were allowed to enter the United States until their hearings. Under the Trump Administration, however, new Wait in Mexico policies are forcing asylum seekers to wait weeks—and sometimes longer—for their claims to be evaluated. This waiting period, called metering, puts migrants at risk, according to Daniel E. Martínez, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Arizona.

“We know that there have been several cases of [migrants] asking for asylum, being told to remain in Mexico until their interviews or hearings who ended up being kidnapped, sexually assaulted or raped,” Martínez says. “Metering puts people who are already quite vulnerable at even higher risk.”

Previously, migrants who reached the United States’ southern border sought asylum by surrendering to American Customs and Border Protection. Many of them, including children, were interned in a network of detention centers.. But in early 2019, the United States struck a deal with Mexico to make nearly 60,000 asylum seekers wait for their hearings in that country.

Border towns often lack the infrastructure to deal with large population influxes, forcing asylum seekers to find ad hoc housing, often living together in shantytowns that lack adequate sanitation and increase the risks of illness. The search for employment is also fraught; migrants are often victims of economic exploitation, working in unsafe conditions for subpar wages.

More than a year later, the coronavirus pandemic has sealed the borders these groups once crossed. Some wait for asylum in the U.S. or in Mexico; many work on the fringes of the informal economy. The virus has frozen their applications and the cramped camps where they live are said to be on the brink of humanitarian disaster as COVID-19 cases appear.

In some areas, the Mexican federal government has stepped in to offer services to migrants who are waiting for their hearings; non-governmental organizations and private entities are helping out in other regions. But the situation remains tenuous and long waits in dangerous conditions could create another issue.

“The backlog is so long and it’s risky to remain in a foreign country [and] people are getting frustrated,” says Martínez. “The border buildup could funnel migration away from urban crossing points…into more remote areas; rather than waiting months for their interviews, more and more people might try to go between ports of entry and turn themselves in to border patrol to try to help expedite this process. I think we could do more as a country that claims to be a nation of immigrants to help alleviate those pressures.”

Mounting Pressure & Problems

Anna Ochoa O’Leary, head of the Mexican American Studies department at the University of Arizona, blames the current administration for ignoring long-established laws that entitle asylum seekers to wait for due process in the United States.

“This administration is not even listening,” O’Leary says. “If you have a credible fear, you are entitled to due process…but with the uptick in the number of people, mostly women and children, arriving in these caravans, [the president] is saying, ‘If you have a credible fear, you have to wait in Mexico…and Mexico doesn’t have the infrastructure to deal with [migrants].”

While migrants waiting in Mexico for their hearings face great risks, the ongoing crisis at the border also has the potential to further strain relations between the United States and Mexico. In the latest standoff, the president threatened to levy tariffs on its biggest trading partner if Mexico failed to clamp down on the influx of immigrants between the nations.

“I'm sure [Mexico] is feeling tremendous pressure in terms of how to deal with this backlog of people coming up through Mexico and remaining near the border,” Martínez says, “and there is no doubt that could potentially affect U.S.-Mexico relations.”

A Bastion for Human Rights

At UArizona, researchers are studying migration, human rights and human security, and often collaborate with other institutions, including the National Autonomous University of Mexico, to share information and resources to help better understand the issues on both sides of the border.

Binational scholarship is important to help inform policy decisions but William Paul Simmons, director of the graduate certificate program in Human Rights Practice at UArizona, believes there is another, more personal reason that the university must engage in research and advocacy around immigration issues.

“Many of our students are from Mexico and Central America; their families fled to the U.S. to escape violence and some of them still have families trying to make the trip to safety on this side of the border,” he says. “We are ground zero for the migrant crisis because we are so close to the border and we need to stand up as a bastion for human rights.”

Aerial view of a river near the US-Mexico border.

A relationship between researchers on both sides of the border sheds light on the impacts of a dam project on the Mayo River, particularly on the Guarijío indigenous people residing in the foothills of the Sierra Madre.

Feb. 19, 2021

The Guarijío people live in the southwest corner of Sonora near the border of Sinaloa, where the foothills of the Sierra Madre fold into the coastal plain bordering the Gulf of California. It’s a striking landscape, one that lies semi-arid for parts of the year and then erupts into a tangle of verdant vines and tropical overgrowth after the summer rains and the Pacific cyclones soak the Rio Mayo. The Guarijío have occupied the remote reaches of this land for hundreds of years, having fled to the foothills to escape the Spanish colonists.

These days, however, their hold on this land — their culture, their livelihood, their way of life — is being threatened due to an infrastructure project known as the Los Pilares dam on the Rio Mayo.

UArizona’s Jeffrey Banister, director of the Southwest Center and associate research professor in the School of Geography and Development, knows this threat well. He has been working to share the efforts of his friend and colleague, Dr. Teresa Valdivia Dounce of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), who has fought alongside the Guarijío to stop the construction of the dam. It’s a fight that has pitted many in this impoverished indigenous group against corrupt governmental foes — a fight that has spurred death threats for some of those opposed. As the Los Pilares dam nears completion, we chatted with Banister about the Guarijío’s plight — and about what that plight represents for Mexico at large.

Revista: You lived in nearby Alamos and the coast of Sonora for four years, and then returned while researching water politics for your dissertation — you understand the Los Pilares project well. Tell us who is pushing for the dam and why.

Jeffrey Banister: A dam was built on the river for the Lower Mayo irrigation district in the mid 1950s. Around 2010, people started pushing for a second dam on the Mayo, as every few years the district gets terrible floods. There also isn’t enough water in the district for the amount of land they’d like to be under cultivation. The thinking, then, is that the second dam will allow them the storage capacity and water control to avoid the flooding.

It’s a pretty typical story in the big irrigation districts in Mexico that there are a handful of small interests running the show: the national water commission, the water users’ association, big ag. These infrastructure projects are typically big pork-barrel projects: lots of money for contractors, lots of kickbacks, etc.

Revista: A similar situation arose in the 1950s?

JB: It did. Then, in the 1970s, my colleague and friend Teresa Valdivia Dounce went to the Guarijío territory with the National Indigenous Institute as a young anthropologist and activist. She helped them get their land back — it really took someone from the outside who was literate in the way she was literate to push through the bureaucratic red tape. And so here we are again, decades later: The new dam will flood out a large portion of the same communities that the government ceded back to them in that land struggle. Teresa and some other allies who’ve been visiting the Guarijío all of these years have continued helping them through the formal channels, trying everything they can to stop this.

Revista: Have they experienced any success?

JB: It went all the way to the Supreme Court and the court basically ruled against it, but they kept building it — at this point, it’s about 85 percent complete. The head of the national water commission ended up at a meeting in the Guarijío country to talk about what was happening with them, and surrounding this meeting were what you might call sicarios, standing around with automatic weapons — that’s how crazy it’s gotten. They’re on the side of the group who wants it to go through — at this point, it’s going to happen.

Revista: And what will happen when it’s 100 percent complete?

JB: The Guarijío’s agricultural practice is based on a tradition of floodplain farming, meaning that it’s not only based on locations near the river, but on the rhythm of the river. With the dam, that will disappear for a lot of these communities. If the dam gets full for any length of time, it’s going to create a dead zone of all the vegetation around it, flooding out at least two or three of their communities. It will flood their cemeteries, their hunting sites. Their livelihood possibilities are going to be limited, and they’re already right there on the edge. It’s a major threat to their culture.

Revista: Were the Guarijío people consulted before construction began?

JB: The government has been saying all along that they had consulted with the Guarijío when in fact their community was almost entirely against it. And then officials started to go in and mess with the Guarijío’s governing structure to take out part of that structure and put in leaders who were friendly to the state government. It’s been some of the nastiest politics I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been working in Mexico for some time.

Here’s an example: The company that completed the first environmental impact study took another impact statement from a project in the state of Veracruz, a thousand miles away, changed the place names and then submitted it as the one for the Los Pilares project. To me, that speaks to how little they think of the indigenous peoples — they think of them as dirty, poor, illiterate. Not everyone has that view, of course, but it’s a structural, institutional racism that’s happening here.

Revista: Is what’s happening in the Guarijío territory illustrative of a larger problem across Mexico?

JB: Most of the people who own or have in their control large swaths of territory are people who are either indigenous groups or people who are in ejidos, which were formed after Mexican Revolution. It’s a significant portion of Mexico’s territory — they’re in control of some of the most biodiverse and sensitive lands in the country, and these also happen to be parts of the country where people want to put in dams, mines, etc. So indigenous people are right on the frontlines of fighting these projects — and to fight one of these projects right now means you are risking your life.

A woman in a mask and a hard hat works on a tablet.

When Covid-19 hit, the Trump administration pressured Mexico to keep factories that supply the United States operating during the coronavirus pandemic, even as outbreaks swept the companies, highlighting the nations' unique relationship.

June 19, 2020

Ever since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed on Jan. 1, 1994, manufacturing in the United States and Mexico have been highly integrated, particularly in the transportation and electronics sectors.

Each country’s economy depends heavily on the trades that are made as a result of NAFTA as well. The issue, however, is that the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico has never been equal — even despite the fact that the two countries make up the busiest cross-border supply chain in the world.

The imbalanced relationship is a result of “primarily unequal production (labor) costs between the U.S. and Mexico,” says Vera Pavlakovich-Kochi, senior regional scientist in the Eller College’s Economic and Business Research Center and adjunct associate professor in the Department of Geography and Regional Development at the University of Arizona. In other words, it’s far less expensive for American-owned companies to outsource production and labor to Mexico, then import the goods across the border.

“As far as ‘becoming more equal’ — this should be the final objective, but the fact is that the present relationships developed because the two sides have not been equal,” Pavlakovich-Kochi says.

The Impact of COVID-19

Then the global coronavirus pandemic hit and caused the relationship between the two countries to become even more frayed than before. This is somewhat of a result of the fact that the Trump administration has pressured Mexico to keep factories that supply the U.S. operating during the pandemic, even as outbreaks sweep the manufacturing companies.

But Mexican officials fought back and forced many of the factories to shut down in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19. The shutdowns caused a massive disturbance in the manufacturing supply chain between the U.S. and Mexico — a disturbance that very well could be felt for many years to come, even after the pandemic subsides.

“During the last two years, I analyzed specifically Arizona's relationship with Mexico and, based on trade data, attempted to estimate portions of Arizona's manufacturing that were dependent on cross-border trade in manufacturing products,” Pavlakovich-Kochi says. The data she analyzed from April 2020 (which, at the time of this writing, was the most recent data available) on the Nogales District — which is made up of six border ports of entry between Arizona and Mexico — was staggering.

The pandemic has caused an unprecedented decline in overall trade through the Nogales District. While it’s hard to quantify just how much of an economic impact the pandemic has had, overall exports to Mexico from the U.S. fell by 45.28% in April 2020 — or $526.3 million — compared to April 2019, while overall imports to the U.S. from Mexico were down by 24.85%, or $497.9 million. Those numbers include cross-border trade of all goods, including produce, livestock, plastics and rubber products, and others.

Manufacturing trade, however, has suffered the most from the pandemic, with three sectors — Computer and Electronic Products; Electrical Equipment, Appliances and Components; and Transportation Equipment — being hit the hardest.

Cross-Border Trade by the Numbers

  • When looking at manufacturing trade in the Computer and Electronic Products sector in April 2020, exports fell by 51.01% — or $79.2 million — compared to April 2019. Imports, on the other hand, declined by 37.86%, or $70.1 million.
  • For Electrical Equipment, Appliances and Components, exports were down in April 2020 by 60.16% — or $95.9 million — compared to April 2019. Imports fell by 56.63%, or $97.5 million.
  • The Transportation Equipment sector sustained the biggest hit. Exports decreased in April 2020 by 87.75% — or $179.2 million — compared to April 2019. Imports dropped by 7.02% — or $35.3 million — compared to April 2019. The lower overall drop in transportation imports can be explained by the fact that many American-owned transportation companies — such as Boeing, for example — outsource production to Mexico, and any transportation-related work was deemed as essential when the pandemic began (although as cases rose in Mexico, transportation-related manufacturing was no longer deemed essential, so production decreased toward the end of April).

A number of the discrepancies in next steps can be attributed to NAFTA — the agreement’s bylaws allow each member country to decide its own course of action “in times of war or other emergency in international relations,” i.e., during a pandemic. In the beginning, persistent pressure from the Trump administration was enough to get many Mexican factories to keep operating. But as the Mexican factory workers became ill and started spreading COVID-19 to one another, Mexican officials stepped in and forced many factories to close.

As for what the future holds, not even the experts are entirely sure. “I do not believe that the U.S. administration would impose more drastic measures to substantially reduce established supply chain,” Pavlakovich-Kochi says. “Although, as we witness daily, everything is possible.”

A view of three men walking near the border fence.

Members of a research team at the University of Arizona are using a novel way to investigate the driving forces behind Central America emigration through Mexico and into the United States: natural language processing and machine learning.

June 1, 2021

Assistant professor Javier Osorio and Professor Alex Braithwaite in the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences are the principal investigators of a $660,000, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to examine why people risk leaving their homes and communities to make the dangerous trip through Mexico to the United States.

Much of the current research on Central America migration patterns to the United States is focused on the apprehension at the U.S.-Mexico border. Instead, the researchers will focus on the country of origin: what are some of the motivators and stressors in the home country that lead to the decision to emigrate, or in many cases, flee?

"Given that the convergence of deteriorating security conditions, economic crisis and climate change is likely to increase migration flows in Latin America over the next three decades, few questions are more deserving of attention and empirical investigation," said Osorio.

The team will use natural language processing and machine learning to analyze more than 14 million anonymized records of migrant apprehensions in the U.S. and Mexico between 2000 and 2019, records that Osorio noted have hardly been analyzed for this type of information.

By analyzing the testimony of migrants at the border, researchers will be able to disentangle the motivating factors, for men, women, and unaccompanied minors, for leaving home on a journey that is risky and often life-threatening.

"We can learn about the conditions that forced people to migrate, because these are part of the conversations that they have with immigration officers, especially when they seek asylum," said Osorio.

Some of the many complex factors that affect someone’s choice to emigrate are gang violence, political crises in the home country, poverty­–which has been worsened by COVID-19–and the desire to access the economic opportunities in the United States.

Machine learning of transcribed and coded Spanish-language newspapers will enable the team to track gang violence and political instability in Central America, and geographic information systems (GIS), a computer system for storing, analyzing and displaying data related to positions on Earth’s surface, will allow them to gather data on natural phenomena, like drought, earthquakes, or hurricanes, to track environmental stressors that affect migration flow from Central America.

For example, in November 2020, Hurricane Eta forced many Central Americans to leave their homes. Mudslides buried whole communities, displacing over 120,000 Central Americans.

In addition to natural disasters, the devastating effects of climate change are impacting migration patterns. In 2018, the United Nations General Assembly affirmed in the Global Compact on Refugees that “climate, environmental degradation and disasters increasingly interact with the drivers of refugee movements.”

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there are more than 20 million people each year who leave their homes because of the disastrous effects of global warming.

In Central America, rising temperatures are causing both drought and increased rainfall, both of which can destroy crops, the source of livelihood for many in the area. This can exacerbate poverty and drive people to flee their homes and communities.

In addition to examining stressors in the origin countries, the researchers will track the routes that migrants follow from Central America and through Mexico, looking at the financial costs and the factors that might offset those costs, like social networks or religious organizations. They will also look at how migration patterns interact with immigrations laws in the destination countries, and how the migrants navigate those policies.

Osorio and Braithwaite’s research has the practical benefit of providing information to humanitarian aid and nonprofit groups to help for disaster preparedness. With this type of information, relief groups will know where, for example, to deploy emergency teams to help with family reunification, the allocation of food, and the provision of shelter.

Ultimately, the team wants to “include the richness of individual stories and the representativeness and generalizability of large amounts of data," Braithwaite said. "Everybody benefits from a better understanding of when and why people will migrate.”

A man examines a table full of guns.

An examination of this complex issue — and why it often gets lost in the ongoing border debates.

Aug. 1, 2021

The right to own a firearm is guaranteed in the constitutions of both the U.S. and Mexico, but the chances of a Mexican citizen legally obtaining a gun in Mexico are slim.

Gun laws in Mexico are highly restrictive–there is only one gun store from which Mexicans can buy firearms legally in the entire country. Meanwhile, the U.S. has the largest legal gun market in the world.

But many of the guns legally purchased in the U.S. do not stay in the U.S.

Over 2.5 million illicit American guns have crossed into Mexico over the last decade. Over that time, more than 215,000 people have been murdered in Mexico.

According to the Center for American Progress, the U.S. is the primary source of weapons used in violent crimes in Mexico. In 2018, more than 20,000 of the 30,000 intentional murders in Mexico were committed with firearms.

Most of the guns trafficked into Mexico are military and assault style rifles. For years, the Mexican government has urged the U.S. to reinstate the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which made it “unlawful for a person to manufacture, transfer, or possess” a semi-automatic assault weapon. The law was adopted with a sunset clause and expired in 2004, even though the majority of Americans supported a ban at the time.

Today, 67% of Americans support a ban on military and assault-style weapons.

The semi-automatic, military style weapons that cross the U.S.-Mexico border, which were formerly banned under U.S. federal law, are now legal unless banned by state or local law. Arizona, for example, has not banned semi-automatic weapons, nor does the state require private sellers to initiate a background check when transferring a firearm.

More than 90% of Americans support background checks for all gun sales, yet a loophole in federal gun laws–known as the “private sale exemption” or “gun show loophole”–exempts unlicensed sellers from having to perform a background check before selling a firearm. This exemption helps legally purchased U.S. guns easily find their way into the hands of gun traffickers.

For some in Mexico, firearms trafficking is just another way to earn a living. Traffickers can purchase firearms in the U.S. and turn around to sell them in Mexico. They can get upwards of three times what they spent in Arizona at a gun show or through a private U.S. seller. Organized crime and drug trafficking operations take advantage of this supply chain and traffic both in bulk and little by little.

Between 2011 and 2016, over 70% of the 106,000 guns used in violent crimes in Mexico originated in the U.S. Those 160,000 guns represent a small fraction of the total number of weapons crossing the border from the U.S. into Mexico. In 2019, around 28,465 weapons, mostly handguns, were legally sold to Mexico. Yet, it is estimated that between 2010 and 2012, nearly 213,000 legally purchased firearms in the U.S. were illegally smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border. These 213,000 firearms represented 2.2% of arms sales in the U.S. during that time, valued at around $200 million.

U.S.-sourced guns are not only contributing to lethal crime and political instability in Mexico, but also Central America. From 2014 to 2016, 49% of guns used in the commission of a crime seized in El Salvador, and 45% seized in Honduras, were originally purchased in the U.S. This supply chain leads to the displacement of Central Americans fleeing violence in their home countries.

Those fleeing often make dangerous journeys through Mexico to ultimately seek asylum in the U.S., where they meet a host of difficulties including record heat in the Sonoran Desert making the trek even more dangerous, a difficult-to-navigate asylum system, and pandemic-era restrictions on the review of asylum cases.

In March, the U.S. House passed a bill requiring universal background checks for firearm purchases. To date, the Senate has failed to pass HR 8.


A plaza in Mexico City.

Trade and worker protections, COVID-19 safety and suppression, and border security and migrant rights are all key issues the U.S. and Mexico must tackle in order to maintain a strong partnership in years to come.

Aug. 1, 2021

The economic vitality of both countries relies heavily on the other. Mexico is the U.S.’s largest goods and services trade partner with $677.3 billion in total goods traded between the two countries during 2019. In 2015, U.S. exports of goods and services to Mexico supported an estimated 1.2 million jobs. This crucial economy of shared goods, services and capital requires protections for workers against unfair trade practices and exploitation.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) trade deal, which regulated free trade between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, was replaced under the Trump administration by the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). ​​Current U.S. Ambassador of Trade Katherine Tai said that “[the USMCA’s] most important feature is that it provides us a framework for pursuing a positive economic agenda that lifts up workers and communities across our three countries.”

This framework was tested in early July when the U.S. and Mexican governments investigated a labor complaint citing potential violations of worker protections at the General Motors’ facility in Silao, Guanajuato. The two governments agreed to a comprehensive plan to ensure international labor standards are being enforced in Silao.

“This agreement shows the commitment of the Biden-Harris administration to centering workers in our trade policy and, if executed faithfully, it promises to result in meaningful gains for workers on both sides of our border,” U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said.

While the mutual enforcement of USMCA helps to safeguard workers’ rights, those on the frontline also need protection against COVID-19. Unfortunately, vaccine doses are in short supply in Mexico.

A new binational program uses vaccines that are about to expire in the U.S. to vaccinate Mexican workers. Maquiladora factory workers, who are considered essential workers, from the border city of Reynosa, Mexico, are bused into McAllen, Texas to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Other cross-border vaccination programs in San Diego, El Paso, and Brownsville have successfully vaccinated maquiladora workers in a similar manner.

But many Mexican workers, both essential and not, remain unvaccinated.

In July, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) announced that Mexico would be prioritizing border states, like Baja California, for those scant available vaccine doses. Mexico’s overall vaccination rate is only 16%, while Baja California now has a vaccination rate of 79%.

AMLO hopes that Baja California’s vaccination success will convince the U.S. to open the border to non-essential workers in an effort to boost Mexico’s suffering economy. However, the Department of Homeland Security extended restrictions for non-essential travel into the United States from Mexico through August 21.

Travel restrictions between the U.S. and Mexico were initially put into place in March 2020 under the Trump administration. One of these restrictions is Title 42, “the public health rule”, a CDC protocol that allows border officers to send migrants and asylum seekers back into Mexico on public health grounds.

The Biden administration has not completely removed this Trump-era pandemic restriction, upsetting human rights activists who say that the implementation was never meant to protect public health. and is incompatible with the precepts of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.

Since March 2020, border authorities have used the public health rule to turn away more than 80,000 migrant families, denying them the right to claim asylum, according to government data. More than 750,000 total persons have been turned away under Title 42, putting many in harm’s way in Northern Mexico.

The United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said the expulsions under Title 42 have “serious humanitarian consequences”. The advocacy group Human Rights First has documented more than 3,200 reported cases of violent assaults against migrants and asylum seekers at the border in Mexico since January 2021, and this number is increasing daily.

At the U.S.-Mexico border, trade and worker protections, public health concerns, and border justice and migrant rights are all intertwined, and the U.S. must work together with the Mexican government to prevent more dire humanitarian consequences at our shared border now and in the future.